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THE WRAP-UP: 16 June 2021

Joshua and Hugh’s fortnightly recap of news from around the world is here! Join us as we discuss:

  • Upheaval in Afghanistan as the Taliban gains new ground.

  • The protestors training to take down Myanmar’s military.

  • El Salvador's decision to make Bitcoin legal tender.

  • Arguments within the UN over how to end HIV/AIDS.

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Topic #1 - Chaos in Afghanistan 

Hugh: That was the voice of a local Taliban governor in Afghanistan - and Josh, I’m sure you could tell but he was sounding very confident. And that’s because, with the US and its allies set to withdraw from the country in just over three months, the Taliban is in its strongest position since the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

In fact, the situation is getting so dire, that thousands of Afghans are now leaving their homes to seek safety as the nation’s armed forces are left to fight the Taliban on their own.

Josh: Wow - that sounds like a real crisis. What has the US and allied withdrawal entailed exactly?

Hugh: Yep so the withdrawal received a lot of media attention in May but since then coverage has been a lot less consistent and so I think it would be really helpful to briefly explain what exactly has been going on.

The US invaded Afghanistan in 2001 following 9/11. And at that time, the Taliban, which is a fundamentalist Islamist organisation, controlled nearly the entire country. In the weeks following its invasion, the US was able to successfully install a new government, but it never truly defeated the Taliban, who fled to the countryside to wage a twenty-year-long insurgency.

[AUDIO of news report from the time]

Astonishingly, it’s estimated that the conflict has cost the US alone $2.3 trillion dollars and it’s contributed to approximately 240,000 direct deaths in Afghanistan, in addition to many, many more indirect deaths...

Josh: So much destruction. But why, after twenty years, has the US decided to leave now?

Hugh: That’s a good question. Over the years, war exhaustion has been a big factor in the US and other countries which have participated in the conflict. But that fatigue was reaching new heights when President Trump came to office in 2017. As President, Trump repeatedly condemned America’s failed war effort and sought a negotiated withdrawal with the Taliban.

[AUDIO from Trump]

By 2020, his outgoing administration had entered into a direct agreement with the Taliban for a US and allied withdrawal by May of 2021. But when President Biden came into office, this withdrawal deadline was unilaterally extended to September 11 of this year.

[AUDIO from Biden]

The September 11 withdrawal date is symbolic, as by the time US and allied forces are out of the country, it will have been exactly two decades since the 9/11 attacks took place.

Josh: If I understand correctly, that makes the Afghan War the single longest-running conflict in US history… How has the withdrawal been playing in practice?

Hugh: You’re right, it is America’s longest war, but interestingly, the withdrawal itself has been surprisingly quick and on time. More than 50% of US forces are already out of the country and it seems as though the entire cohort of foreign troops will be out by the 11th of September. Officially there were more than 10,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan at the time  President Biden announced the September withdrawal, so that means the total strength of the US-led coalition would by now be down to just a few thousand troops.

Key US allies such as Germany and Australia have all reciprocated the American withdrawal and will be out by September. However, Turkey has bucked the trend by offering to stick around and protect Afghanistan’s main airport in the capital city of Kabul. And that particular issue might be one for another episode.

But with so many foreign troops withdrawing, as we heard at the start of this report, the Taliban has become increasingly confident.

Afghanistan is now being plagued by some of the worst violence it's seen since the US invasion, and of course, by having to focus on packing up and leaving, the foreign militaries are not in a good position to assist the Afghan Armed Forces.

Josh: What does that look like for Afghans on the ground?

Hugh: Yeah unfortunately the situation paints a very dire picture for the future of the country. The Taliban have been making new territorial gains, and in areas where they already exercised significant control, they’ve been consolidating power.

That’s meant that thousands of Afghans who cooperated with coalition forces are now looking to leave the country. The Australian Government has strongly hinted at some sort of evacuation plan for interpreters who assisted its military forces, but in the US, thousands of visa applications from at-risk Afghans are being knocked back.

Meanwhile, hard-won women’s rights in what has traditionally been an extremely conservative country are also at unprecedented risk. US intelligence has estimated that as the Taliban increases its control over Afghanistan, girls will lose out on education opportunities and women will be forced into a far more traditional way of life in accordance with the Taliban’s strict interpretation of Sharia law.

Additionally, thousands of civilians have been internally displaced in regions where the Taliban has launched new offensives, and the so-called Islamic State, which also maintains a presence in the country, has launched fresh attacks of its own.

Josh: That’s tragic… so where does Afghanistan go from here?

Hugh: Well as scrap yard owners near abandoned US military bases could tell you, the mountains of broken fridges, gym equipment and gutted generators speak to the scale of the US withdrawal.

Afghan Government soldiers will now have to fight the Taliban on their own, and as history has shown us, these kinds of situations never end well.

The big question is going to be how successful the Taliban’s offensives will prove in the coming years. The new conflict will certainly be bloody, even by Afghanistan’s standards, but there is room for a negotiated power-sharing agreement. That will likely happen if neither side is strong enough to defeat the other. But given the Taliban has controlled the country before, they could always end up controlling it again.

Topic #2 - Rebel Armies in Myanmar

Josh: Hugh, we're going to go to Myanmar, which is reportedly teetering on the brink of a civil war. If you’ve been following Myanmar in the news, you would have seen that for the last four months, the country has been in a state of chaos after its military staged a coup in February.

*Audio from Sky News - Myanmar coup: Military takes control & detains leader Aung San Suu Kyi*

On the 1st Feb, the military (also known as the Tatmadaw) arrested Myanmar’s democratically-elected leader, Aung San Suu Chi, took over the media and declared a year-long state of emergency.

This was a really, really significant move.  The Tatmadaw previously ruled Myanmar in a brutal dictatorship that lasted 50 years. It was only in 2011 that democracy was partially restored.

Given that history, there was considerable opposition to the coup among Myanmar's population.  Millions took to the streets and government employees refused to work.

The Tatmadaw responded to these protests with extreme violence.  It opened fire on civilians -- killing both adults and children. There were even reports that soldiers would randomly shoot passersby in the streets and, in some cases, burnt protestors alive. So far 849 people have been killed and nearly 6,000 detained.  But that hasn’t stopped the protest movement, in fact, tensions have only increased.

Having been unable to bring about change through demonstrations, protestors are now looking to more violent methods of pushing back against the military. In the last few months, protestors have begun travelling across Myanmar to receive battle training from rebel militia groups.

HUGH: Wow, they sound pretty serious then.  Who’s running these rebel militia groups?

Josh: They’re largely run by ethnic minority groups, who have been fighting against the military for decades. The Tatmadaw has long-persecuted minority groups - the most well-known example being the Rohinga.

But there are other ethnic groups that have been oppressed too: the Kachin, Kaya and Karen peoples. Each one of these ethnic groups has created its own militia to push back against the Tatmadaw.

The fact that young protestors from Myanmar’s cities are entering into alliances with these rural, ethnic militias is actually quite significant. It’s led commentators to say that the size and diversity of this protest movement makes it different from others in Myanmar’s history -- and that could mean that the conflict rages on and spirals into a full-scale civil war.

HUGH: With these new alliances forming, do the protestors have a realistic chance at beating back the military?

Josh: It’s hard to tell. Despite their increased support, these rebel militias lack the resources available to the military.  They’re armed largely with homemade hunting rifles, carved out of wood.

They’re up against a military that purchased 2.4bn US dollars in weapons during the last 10 years. What’s more, despite growing alliances, the rebel militias are still quite fractured. There are at least 12 separate rebel armies currently in Myanmar, and attempts to get them to unite and form a national defence force have failed so far.

Hugh: What’s the effect been on Myanmar’s population?

Josh: It’s been pretty severe. For example, in Kayah State, which borders Thailand, ongoing air strikes by the military have forced up to 100,000 people to flee their villages and live in the jungle.

These people are largely cut off from food, water and medicine. The UN is warning of a huge death toll if supplies aren’t delivered to the area. But the Tatmadaw is, so far, refusing to listen.  It’s allegedly put down landmines to prevent people leaving the forest and blocked aid convoys from reaching the region.

HUGH: And that’s not the only battle the military is currently fighting....

Josh: No, you’re right. In addition to the physical battles they’re fighting against the protest movement, they’re also engaging in a legal battle.

Since it arrested Aung San Suu Chi in February, the military has charged her with multiple offences, in order to justify her detention. Initially, they accused her of illegally importing walkie-talkies. Then they charged her with citing public unrest and breaking the Official Secrets Act.

But these recent corruption charges are by far the most serious and could see her jailed for up to 15 years. Given Suu Chi is currently 75 years-old, if she’s jailed for that long, it would pretty much end her political career.  That would deprive Myanmar’s opposition of its long-term leader, and would no-doubt throw the country into further chaos.

So, keep an eye on updates from Myanmar, because the situation is so volatile, and likely to remain so for a long time yet.

Topic #3 - El Salvador Bitcoin

Hugh: Josh this is going to sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but for the first time ever, a country has made Bitcoin once of its official currencies. Following a decision from President Nayib Bukele, the small Central American country of El Salvador has integrated Bitcoin into its economy, making it an official currency alongside the US Dollar.

[AUDIO from announcement]

Josh: That’s nuts. Why would a country suddenly take Bitcoin seriously enough to make it a currency?

Hugh: Well to explain why a country would want to use Bitcoin, it might be best to explain what Bitcoin is in the first place. Bitcoin is an entirely digital currency used across the world to validate what are normally online transactions. The currency relies on blockchain technology, which ensures that transactions can be publicly verified in a safe and quick manner without relying on any public officials or central banks.

This makes Bitcoin an ideal currency in some respects, as it’s not tied to any one country or authority. That said, Bitcoin is often traded by investors as though it were a commodity like gold or diamonds, instead of being used for day-to-day financial transactions.

But as for why El Salvador has decided to use Bitcoin as an official currency - the main justification has been Bitcoin’s status as a global currency. Because Bitcoin can be exchanged quickly and securely across national borders, it’s an ideal way to send money back home in the form of remittance payments.

That aspect alone is really important in a country like El Salvador, which relies on remittance payments from its citizens living abroad in places such as the United States. In fact, there are so many Salvadorans living in the US that in 2001, the diaspora’s combined personal income exceeded the entire Salvadoran economy. That helps to explain why remittance payments alone account for 21% of El Salvador’s GDP - as well as why the Salvadoran Government would be eager to make the process of sending money back to the country as easy as possible.

Josh: It sounds like remittances are really central to this decision then…

Hugh: Absolutely. In fact, accessing finance and savings in general is a really big problem in countries like El Salvador. This was a new word to me and it's probably going to be a new term for yourself and for our listeners too, but roughly 70% of the country’s population is “unbanked”.

People who are unbanked don’t have a bank account and therefore struggle to accumulate wealth. In short, they have no way of storing their money or allowing it to grow, which makes it hard to escape poverty and enter the middle class. And unfortunately, the relative absence of financial services in El Salvador makes the remittance process very difficult.

Sending money back to El Salvador requires an account with Western Union or a similar financial institution. You also need to confirm your identity as both a payee and recipient, and you need to visit a local branch in person.

Josh: Right. So how does Bitcoin make that process easier?

Hugh: Well in essence it replaces the process entirely. Instead of needing a bank account and long visits to Western Union, Salvadorans can simply download an app on their phone to send and receive Bitcoin. And that’s good news for the 70% of the population which is unbanked, since mobile phone penetration in El Salvador exceeds 100%, meaning that the average Salvadoran has at least one mobile device.

[AUDIO of interview with Salvadoran]

The fact that the currency is now legal tender means that businesses are actually required to accept it as payment alongside the other official currency, the US Dollar. Businesses can also price their items in Bitcoin, and citizens are welcome to pay their tax in the cryptocurrency as well.

Josh: Wow. So are we likely to see Bitcoin replace the US Dollar in day-to-day life anytime soon?

Hugh: It’s hard to say. While Bitcoin remittances are much easier to send than US Dollars, the fact that the price of Bitcoin fluctuates so insanely is going to make it very impracticable for day-to-day commerce.

As I said earlier, Bitcoin is often exchanged by investors as though it were a commodity like gold or diamonds, and so its value fluctuates rapidly.

[AUDIO from recent Bitcoin crash]

Those fluctuations would make it almost impossible to, say, price a bag of grapes in Bitcoin. However, the Salvadoran Government is taking steps to make it easier for citizens to exchange Bitcoin into US Dollars. Nonetheless, the fluctuations make that process extremely difficult.

But with other Latin American countries in a similar financial position to El Salvador looking on with interest, if the country’s experiment with Bitcoin succeeds, we might start to see the global cryptocurrency take on a new life as legal tender. So it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

Topic #4 - UN resolution on HIV/AIDS

Josh: Our final story concerns one of the deadliest viral outbreaks of modern times.  And no, I’m not talking about COVID-19.  I’m talking about a crisis that’s been running for 40 years and killed nearly 35 million people -- and that’s the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Last week, the UN General Assembly met in New York and passed a political declaration that said the world would try to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030.

And as part of this, it pledged to:

  • Reduce the number of new HIV infections to less than 370,000 a year by 2025;

  • Eliminate HIV-related discrimination; and

  • Fund the development of an HIV vaccine.

And you’d think that passing this declaration would have been relatively easy, given COVID has shown us the way viruses can completely disrupt society. But, surprisingly, it wasn’t. In fact, it was actually pretty controversial -- so I thought we’d dive into the inner workings of the UN for a moment -- and look at why the declaration caused a bit of a fuss.

HUGH: Let's start with the basics: why did the UN meet to discuss HIV and AIDS this past week?

Josh: The meeting was part of a series of global summits that are held every 5 years to brainstorm ways to cure HIV/AIDS.  The summits are run by the UNAIDS program, which has 181 member countries.

There was particular urgency around this year’s meeting, because at the last summit in 2016, the UN pledged to lower the amount of annual HIV infections to less than half a million by 2021.

That goal hasn’t been met: in 2020, 1.5 million people were infected with H.I.V. and nearly 700,000 died.

COVID-19 has made tackling the virus worse -- diverting funding and attention away from HIV/AIDS.

Hugh: So, given that background, what were the major disagreements about at this year’s meeting?

Josh: Well, they can be broken into 3 key themes. The first disagreement concerned strategies to protect people who are at high-risk of contracting HIV/AIDS.

The EU & US demanded that other countries wind back laws criminalising same-sex relationships, sex work and drug use. People from these groups generally have a higher risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, but, of course, they’re less likely to seek medical help if it means they could be prosecuted.

However, the EU and US proposal was opposed largely by the African bloc at the UN. They disagreed with the proposal largely on cultural and religious grounds. In the end, the declaration kind of met in the middle. It committed countries to winding back laws that target people at risk of HIV, but affirmed the “sovereign right” of nations to implement the declaration in line with their “national laws”, which pretty much gives countries a way out, if they want it.

Hugh: And what was the second disagreement?

Josh: The second controversy concerned women’s reproductive autonomy.  The draft declaration urged member states to empower women and girls to take charge of their reproductive health.  You’d think that would also be pretty uncontroversial.

However, it also faced criticism from three member states: Saudi Arabia, Russia and the Vatican. They tried to remove references to women’s reproductive health -- again for religious and cultural reasons. But their attempt failed and the section on women’s rights stayed in.

Hugh: And the third disagreement?

Josh: So this one is really intriguing: it concerned patent protections for HIV drugs. And patents have been in the news a lot lately in relation to COVID-19. Some developing countries have been asking the World Trade Organisation to remove patents from COVID-19 vaccines, in order to allow companies around the world to manufacture and sell the jabs. That would presumably help increase global supply and lower the price.

And a similar approach was adopted at this year’s summit regarding HIV/AIDS patents. The first draft of the declaration called for patents to be indefinitely lifted on HIV medication. But, this time there was huge opposition from the EU and the US. They succeeded in watering down the declaration so that it just said patents were “important” in fighting HIV/AIDS.

Hugh: Why were the EU and US so opposed to lifting patents?

Josh: Look, it’s probably because both of them are home to major pharmaceutical companies. These companies benefit enormously from the existing patent system, and no doubt lobby the EU and US governments to keep it in place. As a result, it’s pretty usual for the EU to oppose any patent waivers -- for example, it’s also opposed to lifting patents on COVID vaccines.

But for the US, it’s a bit more complex. You might remember that Biden announced last month that the US would support removing patents for COVID vaccines. Yet, a month later, in the context of ending HIV/AIDS, which is also killing millions of people, the US has taken the opposite approach.

And it’s a pretty big inconsistency.  So, I think the question is: how will the US reconcile these two approaches? Will it go back to opposing patent waivers in general, or will its decision regarding COVID vaccines force it to support the removal of patents over other key medications?

Hugh: And that’s all for this Wrap-Up!  Stay tuned for next week’s In-Depth episode.

Josh: In the meantime, follow us, Global Questions, on Instagram or check out our website.  Links are in the episode description.

Hugh: We will see you in a fortnight! Bye.

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